OTTAWA — A decorated Canadian soldier who was released from the military for severe post-traumatic stress disorder has since been assessed by Veterans Affairs as having simple anxiety, making access to benefits and services more difficult.
Former master corporal Collin Fitzgerald, who was awarded the Military Medal of Valour in the killing fields of Kandahar, said he was floored by the determination, which came as he sought benefits following his career in the infantry.
Fitzgerald’s plight underscores a frequent disconnect between National Defence and Veterans Affairs as they transition soldiers into civilian life — a quandary military ombudsman Gary Walbourne highlighted last spring.
Walbourne said it should be National Defence doctors who establish why a soldier is being medically released.
Many ex-soldiers, including Fitzgerald, have faced a struggle for benefits once Veterans Affairs either reviews their medical files or obtains a conflicting medical opinion on whether the injuries are service-related.
Fitzgerald, whose bravery in rescuing fellow soldiers in 2006 made him an important symbol within the army, said retired general Walt Natynczyk took a personal interest in him while he was still of chief defence staff.
He said Natynczyk has also stayed in touch and has been helpful since becoming deputy minister at Veterans Affairs.
“I worry about all the guys out there who don’t have a Gen. Natynczyk watching out for them,” Fitzgerald told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.
Martin Magnan, a spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole, said he’s unable to comment on individual cases.
Fitzgerald said he faced delays in processing all four of his claims before Veterans Affairs, but noted that since being appointed a new case manager last year, his files now seem to be moving along.
“I know guys that just get fed up dealing with them that it just isn’t worth the time,” Fitzgerald said. “It ends up eating up so much of your time fighting with these guys. It’s like an insurance company, and it’s wrong.”
While not commenting on the Fitzgerald case, department spokeswoman Janice Summerby said the department does accept the diagnosis of military doctors, but was not specific about the caveats.
But the legislation governing Veterans Affairs obligates the department to do its own assessment.
The department has been under fire for having too few case managers and overworking the ones they have — something Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole has attempted to remedy with additional hiring.
Fitzgerald didn’t offer an opinion on how the transition issue could be fixed, saying he was concentrating on his own health and carrying on with his life, which has included a couple of recent brushes with the law.
He said he’s been able to return to school with the help of Veterans Affairs programs, but it was a long and frustrating process. The return to classes has also led to volunteering with at-risk youth.
O’Toole said the disconnect between Veterans Affairs and what military doctors are saying can be dealt with by having departmental staff more involved in the decision-making earlier in the process at operational stress injury clinics.
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press